Over the course of Private Lives’ three acts the audience must experience a roller coaster relationship that veers between passionate love and ultimate abuse. Without a captivating Amanda and a charming Elyot the evening goes down flatter and more uncomfortable than three-day-old champagne and cheap canapés. The thrill of the challenge places the play on actors’ wish lists. And the desire to find the right pairing has led directors and producers to make dramatic choices.
Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence
1930 London & 1931 New York
Coward wrote the play with his friend and leading lady Gertrude Lawrence in mind. The play fit them like a well-tailored evening ensemble. His language, style and subtle cruelties played perfectly off of her spirit and strong presence. Amanda and Elyot’s lovehate relationship mirrored the intimate, never romantic, and at times brutal friendship they shared. At times fights on the stage spilled out backstage. As one story goes, Everley Gregg, who played the maid, attempted to breakup one of these backstage brawls. Lawrence is said to have reacted by not speaking to Gregg for weeks.
Donald Cook and Tallulah Bankhead
1948 New York
The first major Broadway revival featured Tallulah Bankhead and Donald Cook. Bankhead would go on to play Amanda as she said in her autobiography: “in ‘thunder, lighting and in rain’ in towns known but to God and Rand-McNally. Unless my abacus is out of order I impersonate Amanda—a Riviera doxy of a bigamous turn—for over two hundred weeks, hither and yon, as well as in Montgomery, Alabama, flying the confederate flag.” Cook’s performance had fine reviews but Bankhead’s blazed as one reviewer said “half a chance on any stage, and she’ll ignite the theater.”
1968 New York
“As a Noël Coward evening,” wrote the New York Times’s Dan Sullivan, Private Lives “isn’t all it should be. But as an Elaine Stritch evening, it’s a smash.
Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith
The married couple of British theatrical royalty continued the tradition of backstage fights. People magazine reported of one “dressingroom fracas” that ended with Smith discovering Stephens with Vanessa Redgrave and in an attempt to hit her knocking out two of his teeth. Stephens and Smith divorced in 1974, Smith came to Broadway with the play and a new leading man.
Michael Jayston and Maria Aitken
Actress and director Maria Aitken had her turn at Amanda in a West End Revival alongside classical actor Michael Jayston.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
1983 New York
Burton and Taylor the twice-divorced (to each other) couple reunited in an attempt to take their famed off-stage chemistry onto the stage. The results were a critical disaster. From Frank Rich’s review: “From the start, the production never even pretends to be anything other than a calculated business venture. Though the irresistible plot mechanics keep Act I sporadically afloat, the two acts to come have all the vitality of a Madame Tussaud’s exhibit and all the gaiety of a tax audit.”
Keith Baxter and Joan Collins
While in her late 50s, Joan Collins approached Amanda with her signature glamour alongside Keith Baxter (who recently directed STC’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest). Collins then toured the U.S. with her revival alongside Simon Jones.
Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan
2001 London and New York
The reviews were unanimously raving for the pairing of Rickman and Duncan. Ben Brantley said he was “quite content to let [the production] live unchallenged in my memory for a few more years.” According to The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner, “Rickman’s hooded, languid amusement is the perfect foil for Duncan’s fragile, jagged steeliness, and they never let you doubt for a nanosecond that this is a passion so grand that it could kill.”
2010 London and New York
Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall was Amanda to both Matthew MacFayden and Paul Gross’ Elyots. In both versions of the production she out shown her leading men, bringing forward a strong alluring take on the character.
Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor
The recent West End revival features Toby Stephens, the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. Like his father, Stephens also shares the stage with his real-life wife Anna-Louise Plowman as his new wife Sybil.